Throughout my lengthy career as a veterans’ disability benefits attorney, I have seen the VA deny many veterans service connection for chronic pain – simply because a doctor can’t identify the source of the pain.
Even though these individuals were clearly suffering from pain, if doctors couldn’t establish a current diagnostic cause of the pain, veterans with pain issues were out of luck.
History of Denial for Chronic Pain VA Benefits
This long-standing VA policy goes back to a well-known 1999 case involving a veteran who was claiming service connection for neck pain. His post-service medical exam diagnosed the veteran with a “history of trauma with continuing pain in the cervical spine.” (Sanchez-Benitez v. West, 13 Vet. App. 282 (1999))
At one point, the veteran underwent two months of treatment for his neck pain. But the VA denied coverage for the veteran’s pain-related treatments after radiology exams could not find any evidence of injury or trauma that could explain the ongoing neck pain.
As you may recall, to establish service connection one needs to show:
- An in-service event
- A current disability, and
- A link between the in-service event and the current disability.
In this case, the Federal Circuit concluded that a “pain alone” claim “must fail when there is no sufficient factual showing that that pain derives from an in-service disease or injury.” (Sanchez-Benitez v. Principi, 259 F.3d 1356, 1361-62 (Fed. Cir. 2001))
This historic decision has applied to all “pain alone” claims – until now.
New VA Ruling Labels Pain a Disability
A recent Federal Circuit ruling overturned the long-established policy of denying “pain alone” claims for service connection. Great news for veterans suffering from chronic pain without any detectable cause.
The new ruling involved Melba Saunders, a Gulf War veteran who served six years in the Army. During service, Saunders suffered a knee injury. Military doctors diagnosed her with “patellofemoral pain syndrome.” In short– knee pain.
When Saunders applied for disability benefits, the VA denied her, saying knee pain produced no true impairment. No disability. Under the law, the VA awards benefits for “disabilities,” not “injuries.”
But this Tuesday, in a historic turn of events, the Federal Circuit Court ruled that Saunders indeed qualified for disability benefits for her knee pain.
The Court stated that “disability” is defined as “an impairment in the enjoyment of life or earning ability.” It opined that “pain is a form of functional impairment,” meaning that pain in itself is a disability – regardless of any diagnosed injury.
The Court reasoned that if the VA awards veterans with Gulf War syndrome benefits for “undiagnosed illnesses,” veterans suffering from chronic pain with no specific diagnosis should also be eligible for compensation.
The new ruling could finally mean undiagnosed veterans suffering from chronic pain will obtain their well-deserved VA benefits.
Likewise, many veterans who suffer from chronic pain develop residual psychiatric disabilities. The new ruling could allow for secondary service connection for veterans who suffer from depression or anxiety associated with their chronic pain.